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Thursday, June 13, 2024

TN Minister Ponmudy, wife awarded 3 yrs jail term in DA case, faces automatic disqualification under RP Act

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Chennai: The Madras High Court on Thursday awarded three years simple imprisonment to senior leader of the ruling DMK and Tamil Nadu Higher Education Minister K.Ponmudy and is wife P.Visalatchi in Rs 1.72 crore disproportionate assets case.

Delivering the quantum of punished after he was convicted for the offence on December 19, Mr Jusitce G.Jayachandran also imposed a fine of Rs 50 lakh each on them.

Since Mr Ponmudy, a six-time MLA and was elected to the State Assembly from Tirukovilur constituency in his native Villuppuram district in the May 2021 polls, was sentenced to more than two years jail term, he sands automatically disqualified as MLA and also as Minister under the Representation of People’s Act.

While suspending the operation of the sentence for 30 days to allow him to file an appeal in the Supreme Court, the Court also directed the copies of the order should be sent to the State government, the Legislative Assembly Secretary and the Election Commission.

The Court also ruled that the Minister could approach this court if his appeal was not taken up for hearing by the Apex Court in 30 days.

Since the Judge had stayed the operation of the sentence for 30 days, the Minister and his wife did not face any imminent arrest.

When 72-year-old Ponmudy and his wife requested to reduce the quantum of sentence, the Judge asked them to make their plea before the Apex Couirt.

While convicting them, Mr Justice Jayachandran allowed an appeal preferred by the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti Corruption (DVAC) in February 2017 and set aside an April 2016 order of acquittal passed by a Special Court for Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA) cases in Villupuram.

He declared that the trial court verdict, in favour of the Minister and his wife, was “palpably wrong, manifestly erroneous and demonstrably unsustainable”.

The judge said that the prosecution had clearly proved that the couple were in possession of assets worth about Rs 1.72 crore disproportionate to their known sources of income during the check period between April 13, 2006 and May 13, 2010 when Mr. Ponmudy had served as Minister for Higher Education and Mines.

Therefore, the Judge found the Minister guilty of criminal misconduct under the PCA and his wife guilty of abetment.

Justice Jayachandran pointed out that the trial court had erred in considering the Minister and his wife as two separate entities and accepting the income tax returns filed by her after the registration of the disproportionate assets case as its sole ground to acquit both of them. He stated that the trial court’s decision to accept the self-serving tax declaration was patently erroneous and contrary to the evidence on record.

“Whether the spouse of a public servant should be treated as a separate entity or as a part and parcel of the public servant would depend upon the facts of each case. In the present case, even if effective business was done by the firms in the names of the spouse, the evidence indicates that she was only a name lender for the operations done by the public servant,” the judge observed.

He noted that “Just because a person has separate income tax accounts and some business, segregating the accounts and properties of the person who has aided the public servant to hold his ill-gotten property will lead to miscarriage of justice… .A miscarriage of justice which may arise from acquittal of the guilty is no less than from the conviction of an innocent.”

A complete miscarriage of justice had occurred by the omission of reliable evidence and by mis-interpretation of the evidence,” Justice Jayachandran noted. “…the overwhelming evidence against the respondents and the unsustainable reasons given by the trial court for acquittal by ignoring those evidence compel this court to declare the judgment of the trial court is palpably wrong, manifestly erroneous and demonstrably unsustainable.

Hence, this is a fit case for the appellate court to interfere and set it aside, the Judge said, while convicting the couple.

Mr Ponmudy is the third serving T.N. legislator to face disqualification in past 10 years after former Chief Minister J.Jayalalithaa and Minister K.Balakrishna Reddy.

According to Section 8(1) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, a legislator convicted of an offence under the PCA should be disqualified for a period of six years, from the date of conviction, if the punishment is limited only to a fine.

However, if a legislator is sentenced to any term of imprisonment under the PCA, then he or she should be disqualified from the date of conviction till the entire period of imprisonment and also for a further period of six years from the date of release, asper the Act.

The disqualification can be avoided only if the conviction, and not just the sentence, gets stayed or set aside.

Apart from the present case, the Minister and his wife face yet another disproportionate assets case related to wealth allegedly amassed during his tenure as Transport Minister between 1996 and 2001. They were acquitted from that case on June 23 this year.

However, Justice N. Anand Venkatesh of the Madras High Court, taking a serious view over he way the lower court had handled the case in a hasty manner and hurriedly acquitted them, took up a suo motu revision against the acquittal on August 10, and it is pending adjudication.

Justice Anand Venkatesh reopened Ponmudy’s case on August 10 after taking up suo moto revisions of acquittals of six politicians including ministers. Justice Jayachandran heard the case following a roster change.The Supreme Court rejected the couple’s pleas against Justice Venkatesh taking up the case. “Thank God we have judges like Justice Anand Venkatesh in our system,” said a Chief Justice of India Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud-led bench in November.Mr Ponmudy and his son Gautham Sigamani, the Lok Sabha MP from Kallakurichi, were questioned by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in connection with a 2011 case of money laundering linked to alleged illegal sand mining.The ED had alleged that Ponmudy violated the Tamil Nadu Minor Mineral Concessions Act during his tenure as Minister of Mines and Minerals between 2006 and 2011 when the DMK was in power. It has also accused Ponmudy of allocating an illegal red sand quarry in Poothurai in Vanur block, valued at around Rs 28.37 crore.

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